Coronavirus Censorship and Spin Draw Public Backlash

Despite the lessons thought to have been learned after the 2002 SARS epidemic, Chinese authorities have been readily using censorship and propaganda amid the outbreak of COVID-19 novel coronavirus–which some see as a contributing factor to the severity of its spread and lethality. In an attempt to keep the public calm and dilute criticism, early cases in Wuhan were downplayed or ignored. Once an epidemic was underway the narrative was controlled with censorship directives. Unsanctioned medical information was labeled “rumor,” medical professionals who shared “rumors” were punished, and the punishments aired on CCTV to serve as a broader warning. Official media has been attempting to boost morale by co-opting popular culture and sharing positive stories of heroic medical workers and selfless citizen acts of charity, as CDT explored in an earlier post. Despite these efforts, public opinion is proving hard to tame. The virus has so far infected over 80,000 in the country, killed nearly 3,000, and affected the lives of nearly every person in China. The official management of information has only added to public anger: after Dr. Li Wenliang–one of eight medical workers censured for “rumormongering” in Wuhan–died from COVID-19, netizens issued a mass call for free speech, some echoing Li’s statement that “there should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

In response to the sharp public anger that followed Li’s death, a private contracting firm recommended that authorities strengthen their management of online information, and use of propaganda to “divert web users’ attention.” Authorities appear to have followed the advice: domestic censorship has continued, more stories of disciplined medical workers have emerged, and VPNs have become harder to use. Meanwhile, citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin have reportedly been arrested for covering the situation in Wuhan, and human rights activist Xu Zhiyong detained after writing an essay criticizing the government. This week, Li Zehua, a reporter who resigned from CCTV and has been working as a citizen journalist to report from Wuhan, was also detained by authorities there and his current whereabouts are unknown. China Media Project translated a final message Li recorded as state security officers apparently came to his door:

Of course, the third thing is that I realize at this point that it’s highly unlikely I won’t be taken away and won’t be quarantined. I just want to make it known, thought, that I have a clear conscience toward myself, a clear conscience toward my parents, a clear conscience toward my family, and also a clear conscience toward the Communication University of China from which I graduated, and toward the journalism field in which I did my studies. I also have a clear conscience toward my country, and I have done nothing to harm it. I, Li Zehua, 25 years of age, had hoped I could, like Chai Jing [the former CCTV journalist who made the documentary “Under the Dome”], work on the front lines, that I could make a film like the one she did in the environment of 2004 about the fight against SARS in Beijing. Or like “Under the Dome” in 2016, the one that was completely blocked online.

[…] I’m not willing to disguise my voice, nor am I willing to shut my eyes and close my ears. That doesn’t mean that I can’t live a happy and comfortable life with a wife and kids. Of course I can do that. But why did I resign from CCTV? The reason is because – I hope more young people, more people like me, can stand up! [Source]

At The New York Times, Li Yuan looks at some of the positive media campaigns Beijing is pushing on the government response to the virus, noting that many in China have little patience left for propaganda:

China’s propaganda machine, an increasingly sophisticated operation that has helped the Communist Party stay in power for decades, is facing one of its biggest challenges.

[…] China’s propaganda spinners have some tough competition. Chinese people have seen images of a young woman crying “Mom! Mom!” as her mother’s body was driven away. They’ve seen a woman banging a homemade gong from her balcony while begging for a hospital bed. They’ve seen an exhausted nurse breaking down and howling.

[…] The crisis has exposed many people, especially the young, to troubling aspects of life under an authoritarian government. In the silencing of people like Dr. Li, they see the danger in clamping down on free expression. In the heart-wrenching online pleas for help from patients and hospitals, they see past the facade of an omnipotent government that can get anything done.

Beijing is doing everything it can to take back the narrative. State media is offering steady coverage of people who leave donations at government offices then dash before anyone can give them credit. One compilation of “dropped cash donations and ran away” headlines tallied 41 of them. [Source]

The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong has more on the backlash to official censorship and propaganda, noting that some of the critique is even coming from state media:

Even state media have acknowledged failings in their approach. Justice Web, a news arm of China’s prosecutor-general’s office, lamented the lack of an independent streak in Chinese media, which it said was instead filled with formulaic stories that emphasize only the positive aspects of the government response.

“At a critical juncture in the battle against the epidemic, the drummers and buglers are playing discordant notes, severely damaging the credibility of the media,” said a commentary published last week on Justice Web’s Weibo microblog. Encountering information they dislike, journalists “automatically filter it and block their ears, reporting only good news and not the bad.”

[…] Suspicion is running high that the government isn’t revealing the full extent of the epidemic. “I can’t really believe the official data showing large declines” in new Covid-19 cases outside of Hubei province, a Weibo user wrote, referring to the region in central China where the epidemic first emerged. “Because large numbers of new cases are political lapses, whereas smaller numbers of new cases are political achievements.”

[…] “These days, everyone’s saying the openness of information is the best vaccine,” said the commentary, which was later deleted. [The article in question was posted by Tencent’s online magazine Dajia, which shut down its WeChat after posting the essay with no explanation] “Blocked ears and eyes are also a contagious disease, and no one can escape.” [Source]

While the public–a sizable portion of whom are currently living under some degree of shutdown, if not total lockdown, due to the virus–often doesn’t accept the state’s spin on the situation at the frontlines, they have been generating their own ways to help deal with the situation positively. At The Guardian, Yuan Ren reports on humor and connection amid the anger online:

There’s strictly no congregating – or socialising – in this new world order. Many cities have banned public gatherings altogether, and official advice has been “Stay in, don’t go out unless necessary”, resulting in many empty streets. Nationwide, cinemas are closed and performances at Beijing’s top arts venues have been cancelled until April. Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million, remains in lockdown. As a result, online social activity and subcultures have bloomed, and state media has joined in too.

To begin with, it was memes showing bats in soup, or people eating the animals whole, as health authorities announced that bats may have been the source of the viral outbreak. But as celebrations for new year slowed down, hashtags such as #whattodowhenstuckathome and #learnanewskill trended on Weibo, China’s Twitter, giving life to a host of funny videos and entertainment.

[…] The special restrictions seemed at first to create a burst of life online. A livestream showing the emergency construction of hospitals in Wuhan attracted millions of viewers, making stars of the tractors involved. On Weibo, each type of tractor has its own page and is ranked, with the “cement mixer” coming in at number three with 8,000 followers and the “small fork lifter” at number one with more than 40,000.

[…] For now, while plenty bemoan the censor’s heavier hand, government channels remain essential sources of information and updates. The truth is that most people are not interested in being controversial, and are just trying to pass the time and are happy for a morale boost. [Source]

Meanwhile, with concerns about China’s development, use, and export of surveillance technology high, CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal reports that experts are warning that the coronavirus could be the “catalyst” for the government to boost its capabilities:

With over 77,000 coronavirus cases confirmed in China alone, the government has mobilized its surveillance machine, a move experts said could continue even after the virus has been contained.

[…] The Chinese government has also enlisted the help of tech giants like Tencent, owner of popular messaging app WeChat and Alibaba subsidiary, Ant Financial, which runs payments app Alipay. On both WeChat and Alipay, users can put in their Chinese ID numbers and where they have travelled. Users will then be assigned a QR code based on a traffic light color system which instructs them about how long they need to be in quarantine, or whether they are free to travel. A QR code is a type of barcode which is widely used on digital platforms in China [and could be used to surveil people’s location].

Mobile networks in China have also released tracking features. China Unicom and China Telecom — both stated-owned telco operators — are asking people to put in the last few digits of their ID or passport number, which will then be used to track a person’s whereabouts. They will get messages outlining where they have been. Again, the feature could be used if a building has strict restriction on people entering who haven’t been in quarantine for 14 days, which is the suggested amount of time by the government.

[…] While the Chinese government has used the coronavirus to justify the increased use of surveillance technology, experts said it could continue even after the virus is contained. […] [Source]

At The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci argues that the coronavirus has revealed “authoritarianism’s fatal flaw”: that the increased use and reliance on surveillance and censorship has helped to obscure reality, leaving leaders unprepared to deal with the situation:

Authoritarian blindness is a perennial problem, especially in large countries like China with centralized, top-down administration. Indeed, Xi would not even be the first Chinese ruler to fall victim to the totality of his own power. On August 4, 1958, buoyed by reports pouring in from around the country of record grain, rice, and peanut production, an exuberant Chairman Mao Zedong wondered how to get rid of the excess, and advised people to eat “five meals a day.” Many did, gorging themselves in the new regime canteens and even dumping massive amounts of “leftovers” down gutters and toilets. Export agreements were made to send tons of food abroad in return for machinery or currency. Just months later, perhaps the greatest famine in recorded history began, in which tens of millions would die because, in fact, there was no such surplus. Quite the opposite: The misguided agricultural policies of the Great Leap Forward had caused a collapse in food production. Yet instead of reporting the massive failures, the apparatchiks in various provinces had engaged in competitive exaggeration, reporting ever-increasing surpluses both because they were afraid of reporting bad news and because they wanted to please their superiors.

Mao didn’t know famine was at hand, because he had set up a system that ensured he would hear lies.

[…] It’s hard to imagine that a leader of Xi’s experience would be so lax as to let the disease spread freely for almost two months, only to turn around and shut the whole country down practically overnight.

In many ways, his hand was forced by his own system. Under the conditions of massive surveillance and censorship that have grown under Xi, the central government likely had little to no signals besides official reports to detect, such as online public conversations about the mystery pneumonia. In contrast, during the SARS epidemic, some of the earliest signs were online conversations and rumors in China about a flu outbreak. These were picked up by the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, who alerted the World Health Organization, who then started pressuring China to come clean, which finally triggered successful containment efforts. […] [Source]


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